The soft imperialism of low expectations
China expert John Pomfret unleashed a storm of criticism this week after publishing an oped in the Washington Post entitled "Some frank advice for President Xi" that argues China has benefited from an unequal relationship with the U.S. "Many of my colleagues, even those from the Democratic Party, are in complete agreement with Trump’s former aide, Stephen K. Bannon, that the United States is in an economic war with China and that Americans have done far too much to facilitate your nation’s rise," writes Pomfret. Pomfret takes Xi to task for policies that have closed markets to American products, encouraged technology theft, and given aid and comfort to North Korea.
Some critics in social media lambasted the piece. One noted that if the U.S. has enabled China's rise, China has reciprocated by enabling the U.S. to prosper. China has allowed the U.S. to indulge its unhealthy habit of overspending by consistently buying U.S. treasury notes and it has kept U.S. inflation low by providing cheap goods to American retail outlets. Other commentators saw Pomfret's piece as a reflection of imperialism. The article failed to make any attempt "to see the world through China's eyes." If Americans were empathetic they would stop placing "unrealistic expectations" on China.
I agree that Americans and other Westerners should not seek to remake China in our own image. I also agree that it is useful to try to see things through Chinese eyes, preferably by living in China for some time. On the other hand, I don't believe that all criticisms of China reflect "unrealistic expectations." Some expectations are realistic. Respect for human rights is one of them.
Unless we're careful, the stance that we should try to see China through Chinese eyes can degenerate into a form of superiority or even racism, i.e., we should not expect China to follow the rules of the game because China is not sufficiently advanced. Or because Chinese people don't have the same needs and wants as the rest of humanity. On this theory, the routine practice of Chinese companies requiring U.S. companies to turn over their trade secrets in order to do joint ventures in the country should be forgiven because "through Chinese eyes" this is not unfair. The arrest and detention of human rights lawyers should not bother Americans too much because the legal system is still primitive. The rights to be free from arbitrary abductions and torture matter less to human beings in China than they do to human beings in New York.
Yes, the West should avoid preaching to China from an attitude of superiority. But avoiding criticizing China because the country is deemed exceptional is another form of Western superiority. And a very destructive one.
Photo: Former President Ulysses S. Grant meets with China's Viceroy Li Hongzhang, 1879. Credit Library of Congress